OPINION: What should a sportsperson be paid?

By Andy Frombolton

How much should Claire Fahey (the reigning and six-times Real Tennis Champion) be paid? Or a netball player in the UK Super League? Or a badminton player ranked #40 in the world?

Few readers would be surprised to learn that neither Fahey nor the netballers earn very much whilst a badminton player with a good global ranking (#33-#50) might typically make just £37k; probably rationalising that these are relatively ‘minor’ sports (in terms of popularity) and that the financial rewards available to players would obviously therefore be commensurately modest.

Which provides the starting point for this article; no one has the right to be paid for playing sport.

In life there are essential public roles like doctors, teachers, soldiers, etc. and Society determines how many of each role are needed and how ‘valuable’ each is (salary) whilst legislation enshrines equality in terms of reward for equivalent jobs.

However, for private sector roles (which includes professional sports) Society doesn’t determine how many people are engaged in any particular activity or their salaries (except a minimum salary for employees) and it’s self-evident that:

  1. a business can only employ people if it generates revenue, and
  2. the number of employees and their level of pay will be determined by the amount of revenue generated.

No one would seek to argue that the examples cited at the start of the article are ‘unfair’ – a sports body cannot distribute money it doesn’t have and players choose to participate in full knowledge of the likely rewards. Yet for more popular sports such as football, cricket and rugby much current debate about how much female sports players are (or ‘should be’) paid chooses to ignore these basic business principles and instead seeks to theorise ‘what constitutes a fair salary?’ as if this figure is independent of the revenue their sport generates.

Ignoring government grants, any sport has four possible revenue streams:

  1. fans who are willing to pay to watch the sport in person;
  2. media companies which are willing to pay for the broadcast and digital rights (the costs being recouped via subscriptions and/or advertising);
  3. sponsorship; and
  4. merchandise.

Hence the number of fans, their willingness to pay to watch the sport, and how attractive they are to advertisers and/or sponsors determines the amount of money coming into a sport and thereby establishes a cap on how much can be spent on sustaining and growing the sport (including wages for staff and players).

Premier League football is a pure manifestation of this model, albeit one which benefits massively from being an established product with a large fanbase which is attractive to certain advertisers / sponsors and whose willingness to pay is well-understood. The cricket WPL utilises the same model, although it differs in that the sums involved can only be justified on the expectation of a significant increase in the fan base and that this fan base can be monetised. The WPL investors and sponsors are thus taking significant risks regarding both the potential market and the willingness of fans to pay for a product which has hitherto been free (or very cheap). But in both cases the same fundamental business principle applies – (over time, in the case of the WPL) revenue must exceed outgoings.

Looking to examples in our everyday lives, no one would argue, for example, that a successful restaurant should cross-subsidise a less popular one and we readily accept that customers decide which establishments prosper and which fail. Similarly, we don’t expect all bands or comedians to be equally popular – fans will determine who does well. At the same time however, we might also recognise that some groups of people are over-represented in some sectors or that there are barriers to entry which means some groups are under-represented, and any just Society would want to ensure that under-represented or disadvantaged groups have the same chances to succeed. This isn’t only fair-minded, the consumer benefits too. Who wouldn’t want wider choice, more variety, new offerings? But critically the objective of any such targeted intervention cannot be ‘equality of outcome’ but ‘equality of opportunity’. Provided everyone has the same chance to be e.g., an actor or an entrepreneur then the market must ultimately be free to assign a value to people’s efforts; some restaurants will be more popular than others (not necessarily based on the quality of the food) and being a good actor doesn’t guarantee that your play will sell out if the audience prefer (based on criteria which they alone decide) to spend their money elsewhere.

Cricket is rightly concerned about ‘equality of opportunity’. If women (or e.g., some ethnic groups or people living in certain areas) haven’t previously felt that cricket was a game for them then all cricket fans should want to address this whether their motivation is acknowledging historical societal injustices, inclusion or simply wanting to maximise the number of people who enjoy the sport (playing or supporting). Regarding this final point, when there are so many activities competing for people’s time and money and the viability of many small clubs is in doubt, cricket’s survival (as both a spectator and player sport) depends in its ability to both maintain and expand its fan base.

Fans of women’s cricket, myself included, were genuinely excited by the recent WPL auctions and the potential for the best players in the world to earn serious amounts of money, but it also prompted me to question some of the arguments deployed regarding pay in the women’s game. Surely, it’s disingenuous to approve when the free market delivers an outcome I like (such as the WPL), but to argue that fundamental business principles (i.e., pay should be linked to revenue generated) aren’t relevant when they produce outcomes which I don’t?

I anticipate that some readers are ready to accuse me of positing that women players don’t deserve to be paid the same as the men or that the women’s game isn’t the ‘equal’ of the men’s game, but they should note that this article hasn’t made any reference to salaries in the men’s game or hypothesised what a fair salary might be. So far, this article has simply put forward 2 criteria for reward in any sport: firstly, that no one can expect to be paid for playing a sport unless there’s a fan base to fund them (whether directly or indirectly); and, secondly, provided that everyone has the same ‘equality of opportunity’, that the free market should subsequently determine their level of reward.

Whether you feel positive or negative at this point may well depend on the opportunities you see for the women’s game. If you view the potential fanbase for women’s cricket and the scope for revenue generation to be limited, regardless of how high the standard is or how well it’s marketed and sold, then you may not like the outcome of applying these two criteria. But, if you don’t accept that reward should be linked to popularity and revenue generation, then how do you rationalise (and accept) the differing rewards accruing to today’s top women cricketers compared to the Real Tennis world champion or a UK netballer or a top badminton player?

Alternatively, you might, like me (and, more importantly, people like the WPL franchise holders, media companies and sponsors), envisage a future where women’s cricket can develop a large fan base which is willing to pay to watch the support and which is attractive to advertisers and sponsors.

What would that take? Fundamentally it would require the women’s game to have complete financial and marketing independence – with all the associated risks and opportunities. Are the current administrators willing to accept autonomy with its corollary of accountability? At one stroke, this would serve to end all debate about how the women’s game is currently promoted and its share of co-mingled revenue. It would be for this women’s administrative body to decide the structure of the game, which formats were played, the scheduling of matches and how the game was promoted. It should also have the right to strike separate deals with broadcasters and sponsors. (The ICC is already committed to selling the rights to women’s tournaments separately, initially just in India.) The competence of this board and the quality of its decisions would solely determine the game’s ability to generate and maximise its revenue. (One point of clarification, I’m only talking about pay and reward in the professional game. Given the wider and indivisible benefits to cricket of having more people playing cricket identified earlier in this article, ‘the men’s game’ should continue funding all women’s age group and county cricket.)

Secondly, any cross reference to men’s pay would be rendered irrelevant. The women’s sport would be a stand-alone business and, within its budget, the various woman’s administrative bodies would have complete freedom to decide the structure of the game including the number of professionals and their salaries.

Instead of aping the format of the men’s competitions, they could experiment to find out what works for women’s cricket. Is there demand for weekends / festivals of women’s cricket e.g., with all 8 UK regional teams playing at one venue over the course of a weekend or a few days? What would be the market for playing two T20 internationals in a single day? Could an Anzac team or an International Development team be invited to play in the CEC or RHF (with reciprocation for player development)?

Similarly, it would a decision solely for the women’s board if, for instance, they wanted to play more Tests. Marketed differently these games might be extremely popular but, conversely, if these games needed to be subsidised (just as the men’s game subsidises their 50 over competition and even county cricket) this decision would have a direct and transparent impact on the funds available for other activities.

Perhaps a media outlet which doesn’t currently show cricket (e.g., Facebook or Amazon) might seek the rights? Or new sponsors and advertisers might emerge who value the potentially-different demographics of the fan base? One of the manufacturers of cricket equipment might see an opportunity to take a large share of the growing women’s market. Perhaps the women’s administrators or players might decide to take an ethical stand regarding e.g., betting sponsors? Could a co-operative structure work whereby players owned tournaments and kept all the profits?

Notwithstanding the day-to-day separation of the women’s and men’s games, there’d remain both a need and a benefit for men’s and women’s administrative bodies to work closely together on issues of synergistic or mutual concern. Arrangements like double-headers should still continue; the hosts benefitting from spectators spending more time at the ground and the women’s game enjoying the greater exposure (although there’d need to be data-driven discussions regarding sharing of ticket receipts – something which, to date, the ECB has shown no desire to empirically quantify).

Obviously, there’d need to be a transition period for the women’s game to prepare for the new arrangements (and for extant media deals to expire), but the fundamental question is ‘does the women’s game want to assume responsibility for its destiny?’

The opportunity exists to create a business model which provides excellent salaries for professional players and which can sustain the necessary pyramid of talent. Women’s sport shouldn’t be sold or marketed as an hors d’oeuvre for the ‘main’ (male) event or ‘double the airtime’ for a few dollars more. This devalues the sport and the players whilst entrenching the conditions for irritation and lingering resentment. (If budgets are squeezed in the future, the situation might arise where ‘the men’s game’ starts to question the equity of the current arrangements?) Surely, now is the time to devolve as much responsibility as possible to the male and female formats.

It is pure speculation what the end result would be. Done well, there is undoubtedly a scenario where regional professionals could be paid more and the top players considerably more. Conversely, it might transpire that the game cannot support the current structure and a different arrangement is required. But wouldn’t it better if the outcome was in the hands of a dedicated body whose only focus and ambition was for the success of women’s cricket?


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